Should Your Story Have a Prologue?
Prologues— when done well—can make the reader invested in your story before they’ve even started Chapter One. However, when not done well, prologues are unnecessary or just plain boring, and readers will skip over them. So what is a prologue, and how do you write one well?
What is a prologue?
A prologue is a separate introductory section of a book. It comes right before the first chapter, and it’s a piece of narrative set apart from the main story but still important to the plot.
If you’re going to write a prologue, it needs to be necessary to the story you’re trying to tell. You’ll need to ask yourself: What purpose does it serve for the reader? Why is it important to the story? How does not having a prologue affect the main narrative?
Your prologue should also be separate from your story. This doesn’t mean it’s not relevant—remember, it still has to be important to the plot— but it might mean giving the reader a different perspective. This could look like a scene from the point of view of a character who is not your hero, or showing a flashback of an event that occurred prior to the start of your story.
Consider your genre
When adding a prologue, think about the genre your story is in. Prologues may be better suited and more commonly used in certain genres, such as thrillers or epic fantasy, especially if they’re used to give a glimpse of something interesting to come or piques the reader’s curiosity and get them to ask questions.
This doesn’t mean you can never include it in another genre where it’s used less often. Remember, it’s about finding what works best for your story. Look at stories in your genre that have used prologues. How are they written? What function or purpose does the prologue serve in that story? If the prologue were removed, would the plot still work well without it?
It’s also good to keep in mind that just because prologues may be popular in certain genres doesn’t mean you have to include one in your book. Use the questions from our first tip to help you determine if adding a prologue would best suit your particular story.
Avoid info dumps
One common mistake writers make when writing a prologue—especially when writing fantasy or science fiction—is to use it to explain the world to the reader. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: do not use your prologue as an info dump!
There may be a lot of information about your world that you want the reader to know, but nothing will have readers closing a book faster than long passages of the world being explained before you’ve even engaged them in the story. Include essential details only. You’ll want to focus on the “show, don’t tell” principle. Rather than using a lot of exposition, show us the scene through the action, dialogue, or character’s thoughts.
Another way to avoid info dumps is by keeping the prologue brief. Your prologue doesn’t have to be the length of an entire chapter. Depending on your story, the prologue may be a few lines or paragraphs, and that’s perfectly fine. You don’t want to delay readers too long from getting to the heart of the story.
Pull the reader in
You have a certain amount of time to grab and keep the reader’s attention before they move on, so your prologue has to be engaging. There are several ways to do this. You can show a sneak peek of the catalyst or another action scene that will occur later on in the story. You can flash back and show an event that occurred before the start of your main plot, but that’s still pivotal and ties into the storyline. Reveal just enough information in the prologue to raise questions in the reader’s mind that will keep them turning the pages to get the answers.
For example, in Riley Sager’s thriller Final Girls, the prologue is a fast-paced scene of the main character, Quincy, fleeing an attacker in the woods:
The forest had claws and teeth.
All those rocks and thorns and branches bit at Quincy as she ran screaming through the woods. But she didn't stop. Not when rocks dug into the soles of her bare feet. Not when a whip-thin branch lashed her face and a line of blood streaked down her cheek.
This prologue immediately creates a mood of imminent peril and gives the audience a reason to keep reading. The scene is only a page and a half long, but by the end of it, Sager leaves the reader with three chilling lines that set the stage for the story's conflict, as well as the hero's arc:
Only Quincy remained.
All the others were dead.
She was the last one left alive.
Who is after Quincy, and who are "the others"? What events led to this scene? How does Quincy escape? Most of these answers won’t come until the very end of the novel, propelling the reader to the final pages.
Another way to make your prologue engaging is by experimenting with an epistolary form, such as a letter, journal entry, or another document. In Michelle Hodkin’s The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, the prologue uses a brief letter from our main character, “Mara,” to explain that her real name is not actually Mara Dyer, but her lawyer advised her to use a pseudonym. In the letter, she briefly mentions several murders committed by a teen and that she’s writing this letter so “you’re not next,” even though the letter isn’t addressed to any specific person.
This raises many questions in the reader’s mind: Who is Mara, really? Who was murdered, and how is Mara involved? Who was the letter meant for? The prologue also reveals to the reader important information about the main character (her fake name) that we wouldn’t have naturally gotten in the main story. We don’t know who Mara Dyer actually is, and it sets up this mystery with an intriguing and unreliable narrator at the center.
Write your prologue last
One way to determine if your book actually needs a prologue is to write or edit your prologue last. Once you’ve completed a draft of your novel, read through your entire manuscript. This will make it easier to see if adding a prologue would enhance the story. If you’ve already written a prologue, but after revising, realize it doesn’t actually serve a purpose, then cut it out of your draft.
Bonus tip: Consider using a different title rather than “Prologue,” or no title at all. In Final Girls, Riley uses “Pine Cottage, 1 a.m.” as the title heading for the prologue. This can help entice readers who might otherwise skip your prologue.
Remember, when you’re writing your prologue, be sure you have a purpose for it, avoid info-dumping, fit it to your genre, and use it to set the stage for the main storyline. With the tips above, you’ll have a prologue that hooks readers in before they’ve even started your story!